Why is it important to have stable funding for public media?

19th June 2024
Following proposals to increase the licence fee for Czech TV, the broadcaster’s Director General explains the importance of stable and sufficient funding for public media, to ensure it can fulfil its mandate.
A Czech TV van, in Prague. Credit: Harry Lock

This Insight was originally published on Czech TV and is republished with permission. Czech TV is a member of the Public Media Alliance. 

By Jan Souček, Director General of Czech TV

When I recently read several insightful comments about how it is premature in the Czech Republic to rehabilitate the financing of public service media, or perhaps about the fact that a successful hockey championship is an obvious example of what public media should not broadcast, I was convinced to write the following lines.

I will start with the World Hockey Championship or the thirteenth Star Dance, which is also waiting for us this year. The assumption that public service media should only offer viewers what is uninteresting to commercial media because it only interests a small group of people and is therefore unprofitable is false from the outset. The person who utters it is either profiting from commercial audio-visual content or has not managed to think a little longer about the meaning and system of operation of public media.

Read more: How CBC/Radio-Canada is addressing declining trust (Insight)

Let’s forget the fact that sport and specifically the world championships and matches of national teams are given to Czech Television due to valid legal regulation, just like entertainment. But what is behind it is more important. Namely, the fact that the strategic role of public media cannot be fulfilled without the content of these media reaching all social strata, so that the public media maintains a good name among them or the feeling that they, too, can find something for themselves in these media. Sports and entertainment clearly belong to such unifying programme elements. And that’s why it undoubtedly belongs to the programme composition of Czech Television. Otherwise, it would not be able to fulfil its integrative social role.

Speaking ill about the Czech Television’s seven-billion-dollar annual budget with the public is particularly effective in the media because no ordinary family in the Czech Republic manages such a budget and certainly has no idea how much it will cost to buy, for example, a successful Christmas Eve fairy tale, which the Czech viewer impatiently waits for every year. The reality is (for illustrative purposes) that the service of six CT channels will cost a Czech family even after the planned increase of 15 crowns to the value of roughly two bread rolls per day (specifically 4.93 crowns).

And while the average old-age pension in our country has increased by 114% since 2008, the income side of the national budget has increased by 104% and the average wage by almost 90%, and the TV fee is to be increased for the first time in that time by – guess what – 11%.

“For the television fee, we receive a shared service, a guarantee that there is a standard of professionalism, quality, independence, impartiality and reliability on the Czech television market.”

Arguments are also flying around that commercial television in the Czech Republic can create the same or even a higher number of channels with smaller budgets, and this is supposed to be proof of the uneconomical nature of Czech Television. We compare incomparable. The number of plates on the table still does not say anything about what I fed the diners and in what quality.

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Czech Television has long been offering its viewers over 2/3 of the original content, while commercial television has the exact opposite ratio of original production. And so, while the production of one new episode of a popular series costs up to 10 million crowns in the Czech Republic, the purchase of a foreign serial episode usually costs less than a twentieth of this amount. For example, no one in the Czech Republic, apart from CT, keeps permanent reporters at eleven posts abroad. In society’s most difficult moments, when we are crushed by a deadly pandemic or when a brutal mass murder occurs in the centre of a metropolis, the entire nation unfailingly reaches for public service news as the first choice. If you ask sports fans where they would like to watch their favourite sports match, the answer is clear – on CT.

It is not a coincidence. It is the result of more than 70 years of built tradition and high professionalism. It’s no coincidence that the highly successful entertainment on the screens of ČT1 – recently represented by, for example, “StarDance” (Czech licensed version of “Dancing with the Stars”) or “Peče celá země” (Czech licensed version of “The Great British Bake Off”). The fact that they attract the interest of sometimes up to two million viewers at once is the result of a good producer choice and also of many years of pampering these formats. The same formats are also broadcast abroad. Both were created by the public British BBC, but are also broadcast by commercial television (for example, in Slovakia). Anyone in the Czech Republic could reach for them, licences are sold on the free international market. Our colleagues from commercial television reached for other programmes purely based on free choice. It would be Pharisaical* to blame us for choosing a top-notch show. The commercial revenues associated with the broadcasting of these programmes will cover only a part of the license and production costs. But this is our way to maintain the interest of people across all social groups and not lose the value of public television for the people of our country.

“In society’s most difficult moments, when we are crushed by a deadly pandemic or when a brutal mass murder occurs in the centre of a metropolis, the entire nation unfailingly reaches for public service news as the first choice.”

I also read that we will have more expensive media than the Swiss, that it is a hidden tax and not a fee and a lot of other lies or manipulations. First of all: the tax is collected by the state and it can do whatever it wants with it. For example, the consumption tax we pay on petrol can be used to pay a housing allowance or perhaps compensation for frozen fruit. However, by definition, the fee is always tied to the provision of a specific public service. For a fee per dog, the municipality takes out trash cans, mows the grass and distributes bags. For the television fee, we receive a shared service, a guarantee that there is a standard of professionalism, quality, independence, impartiality and reliability on the Czech television market.

It is not a subscription, i.e. a payment based on the “I watch, therefore I pay” model. It is a kind of insurance that even if I am not watching, I can watch at any time and the imaginary guardian of the above-mentioned characteristics of the TV market is still working somewhere. This also explains why entrepreneurs and companies should continue to participate in the payment of television fees in the Czech Republic. It doesn’t matter if their employees or customers are actually watching TV in their establishments. We all benefit from independent, objective reporting and free and fair political competition controlled and moderated by the public media.

And in conclusion, allow me a few more numbers. As for the Swiss and the alleged high cost of the Czech public media: Swiss Television and Radio (SRG-SSR) has an annual budget of 1.538 billion euros, i.e. 38.5 billion crowns. If there is an announced fee increase in the Czech Republic, television and radio will manage a total of 11.5 billion crowns. At the same time, a number of costs are the same for us and for the Swiss – especially the technological ones. The Swiss media market also benefits from the fact that it shares a language with three neighbouring countries. Swiss public television therefore operates in a completely different environment and the pressure to invest in original and therefore very expensive creations is completely different than in the Czech Republic. The main German-speaking channel of Swiss public television broadcasts an average of 65% of acquisition programs every year, i.e. those where the costs are up to 20 cents compared to the original production. Channel ČT1 broadcasts 18% of such programs. In terms of the proportion of original work, we belong to the European top – alongside such legends as the German ARD or the British BBC. Compared to the rest of Europe, even after the planned increase, our fees will still be significantly below average. Converted to euros (including radio), they will amount to 98.4 euros per year. The EU average is 123.5 euros. So a whole quarter higher.

* marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness

About the author

Jan Souček is the Director General of Czech TV.

Our thanks to Czech TV for allowing us to republish this Insight.